Giulia Forsythe drew this amazing pictorial summary of my TED Talk at TED Global 2012 for an upcoming TEDx event (TEDxUSagrado):
I think it’s fabulous! Thank you, Giulia!
My review of Jonathan Lyons’s book, The Society for Useful Knowledge has appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. Subscribers can read the piece here.
A text-only version for non-subscribers:
BOOKSHELFSeptember 6, 2013, 4:19 p.m. ET
Book Review: ‘The Society for Useful Knowledge’ by Jonathan Lyons
Benjamin Franklin did far more for science than simply fly a kite.
By LAURA J. SNYDER
Benjamin Franklin once led a party of merry picnickers who, with electrified gilt goblets, toasted the international community of scientists studying electricity. The group then slaughtered a turkey with an electrical charge and roasted it with electrical fire. Franklin observed: “Birds killed in this Manner eat uncommonly tender.” Franklin was one of the foremost “electricians” of his day, winning the prestigious Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his theoretical and practical accomplishments in the field. Connections between Franklin’s scientific work and his role in early American politics have been explored in a number of biographies and scholarly studies. In “The Society for Useful Knowledge,” Jonathan Lyons takes a provocative turn: He claims that Franklin’s notion of “useful knowledge”—gleaned from the charter of the Royal Society—spread throughout the colonies and “made possible the Revolution and . . . America’s characteristic political and economic systems.”
The Society for Useful Knowledge
By Jonathan Lyons
Bloomsbury, 220 pages, $27
The Royal Society, founded 46 years before Franklin’s birth in 1706, was Europe’s leading scientific body. As a young man, Franklin was struck by its exhortation “to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanic practices, Engines and Inventions by Experiments.” He drafted a “Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge” influenced by these goals and dreamed of forming his own, uniquely American, scientific society. In 1727, he launched a modest group, the “Leather Apron Club”: 12 scientifically minded men who met once a week, initially at the Indian King Tavern on Market Street in Philadelphia. Soon other local scientific societies would be formed, part of a loose social network of men circulating scientific knowledge within and among the colonies.
In Mr. Lyons’s telling, Franklin’s own scientific work, like the forming of the Leather Apron Club, was guided by the ideal of “useful knowledge,” and in detailing Franklin’s work he gives pride of place to the invention of the lightning rod. To be sure, this was an important innovation, but focusing on it fails to convey a full sense of Franklin’s accomplishments. Franklin proved that electricity was a phenomenon that occurred in nature as well as in the laboratory. He invented a theory that brought order to a bedlam of apparently unrelated facts and demonstrated that any adequate scientific system must encompass electricity and magnetism. Far from believing solely in practical science, Franklin supposed that theoretical work—as we would say, “basic research”—would be equally necessary.
Mr. Lyons introduces us to other scientific thinkers and inventors of the day, including David Rittenhouse, a young Philadelphia clockmaker who emerged as one of the leading astronomers of colonial America. Rittenhouse’s effort, in 1769, to chart the transit of Venus over the face of the sun (an event that happens in pairs of occurrences every 100 or so years) added to the legitimacy of the newly formed American Philosophical Society—Franklin’s long dreamed-of national scientific association—which had funded it. Overcome by excitement and exertion, Rittenhouse fainted in front of his telescope, nearly missing the transit.
Mr. Lyons tells an interesting, if unoriginal, story of the growth of science and scientific networks in colonial and post-colonial America. But in formulating his ambitious claim that the notion of useful knowledge “made possible the Revolution,” he overreaches. His application of the term “useful knowledge” is frustratingly fluid, encompassing anything practical, experimental, utilitarian or self-reliant, from educational policy to the kind of “common sense” expressed in Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet. Some set of ideas—scientific, philosophical, religious, political, military and economic—did inspire the American Revolution and what came after. By reducing that collection to the catchall phrase “useful knowledge,” Mr. Lyons renders his book less useful than it might have been for illuminating both Franklin and the intellectual roots of our nation.
—Ms. Snyder is the author of “The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”
A version of this article appeared September 7, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Franklin’s Bright Spark.
I recently sat for an interview (via Skype) with George Aranda of Science Book a Day, which featured The Philosophical Breakfast Club today. We chatted about PBC, my next book, how scientists can best communicate science to the general public, and what it was like to give a TED talk. You can view the interview on the Science Book a Day website (well worth checking out, by the way!) here or directly below.
The Philosophical Breakfast Club, and my recent TED Talk, were featured in Newsweek‘s piece “Around the World in Six Ideas,” written by Christopher Dickey:
Before There Were Scientists
The word “scientist” was not coined until 1833. Before that, scientific disciplines were the domain of mostly wealthy men and women who called themselves “natural philosophers.” They might have had curiosity cabinets full of fossils, concoctions, and pickled bits of anatomy, but laboratories were few and far between. Then, oddly, the eccentric, opium-imbibing poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge challenged this use of the metaphysical-sounding word “philosopher.” The response, as in “artist” or “cellist,” was “scientist.” Laura Snyder tells this story in her fascinating book The Philosophical Breakfast Club about the way four geniuses at Cambridge University revolutionized modern science to create the many disciplines that exist under that rubric today. But there’s a downside, too, she said in a recent TED talk. Her 19th-century heroes would have been “deeply dismayed” by the way science has been “walled off” from the rest of today’s culture. She finds it “shocking” that only 28 percent of American adults can say (correctly) whether humans and dinosaurs inhabited Earth at the same time or how much of the planet is covered in water. The majority, it seems, either don’t know, don’t care, or think those are, well, metaphysical questions.
From yesterday’s TED blog, a fun piece on seven groups of writers/artists/philosophers who transformed their world–and ours.
Here’s the TED Talk on the Philosophical Breakfast Club I gave at TED Global 2012. Share!
A nice piece on consilience is just out in Philosophy Now magazine. Written by Toni Vogel Carey, the article highlights the different views of consilience held by Whewell/Herschel on the one hand and E.O. Wilson/Stephen Jay Gould on the other. Definitely worth a look by anyone interested in scientific confirmation.
My review of David Berlinski’s The King of Infinite Space: Euclid and His Elements will be in this weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. Just in time for the Oscars, there’s even a movie tie-in:
“One of the more curious historical revelations of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is that America’s 16th president was obsessed by a Greek mathematician from the fourth century B.C. While traveling from town to town as a young lawyer riding the Eighth Circuit in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln kept a copy of Euclid’s geometrical treatise, “The Elements,” in his saddlebag; his law partner Billy Herndon related that at night Lincoln would lie on the floor reading it by lamplight. Lincoln said he was moved to study Euclid by his desire to understand what a “demonstration” was, and how it differed from any other kind of argument.”
The entire review can be read here.
Happy 2013, everyone!
To start off the new year, here’s my latest for the Wall Street Journal: a review of three books that locate the origins of modern scientific practice where we may least expect it—in monks’s cells, magicians’s workshops, and alchemists’s hidden laboratories. Read the review here and in tomorrow’s print edition.
The books are: John Freely’s Before Galileo, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions, and Lawrence Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy.